But unlike many 7-footers with similar athleticism—think Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teammate Brad Sellers—Zeller embraces the role of center. Zeller is good for at least a bucket a game (sometimes more) in transition, but his bread and butter is around the basket, shooting hooks, short jumpers, and finishing with dunks when possible. Zeller has good range and at the next level will undoubtedly take his share of jumpers from the top of the key or even farther out; but as a college player he's avoided succumbing to the temptation to mistake himself for a perimeter jump shooter.
Zeller's unique package as an offensive player was apparent from the first game of his freshman season (an impressive 18-point outing back in November 2008). But at the end of his sophomore year, some observers felt he was well short of realizing his potential as one of Carolina's all-time great big men. Zeller suffered from inevitable and unfair comparisons to Tyler Hansbrough, and from being caught up in the general dysfunction that was 2010, but most of all he was hampered by injuries: injuries that essentially stole his freshman year, then put him on the sidelines for the bulk of conference play as a sophomore.
Zeller's evolution since then mirrors that of the Tar Heels as a whole. Zeller led the league in field goal percentage as a junior while also turning in numerous stellar defensive performances. Then in the NCAA Tournament he blew up, averaging just under 26 points a contest in four tournament games.
Zeller had a relatively slow start to his senior campaign, averaging just under 14 points per game in the nonconference slate, but in 14 league games is tallying 17.6 points on 56 percent shooting. On more than one occasion during that stretch, Zeller has looked like the only reliable bet in Carolina's half-court offense.
Offensive stats only tell part of the story. Zeller plays as a true center, but he also has impressive all-round skills. Zeller has not one but two signature plays. The first is, of course, the fast break dunk or layup after beating everyone downcourt. But the second is on the defensive end, where Zeller has an uncanny ability to steal entry passes without fronting his man and without fouling. To come from completely behind or three-quarters of a player to steal an entry pass cleanly, time after time, is a testament not just to long arms and quick feet but impressive anticipation.
Zeller, in short, has an excellent ability to "read" the game, on both ends of the court. This is manifest in lots of ways: his ability to be on the same page with that other lightning quick basketball brain Kendall Marshall on play after play, the fact that Zeller rarely forces bad shots, the chemistry he enjoys with John Henson on inside passes from one to the other, and the fact that in conference play his steal and block total (combined) exceeds his fouls committed.
Those attributes are solid evidence of a good basketball brain at work. So too is the fact that reporters routinely congregate around Zeller after Tar Heel games, not just because he is at the center of so much action but because they can rely on him to give a fair-minded and insightful account of the game's events. The extraordinary award bestowed on Zeller last week as college basketball's Academic All-America of the year (on top of his award in 2011 as the ACC Men's Basketball Scholar Athlete of the year) simply cements what those close to the program already knew: Zeller is living proof that excellent basketball players can also be excellent students and sharp thinkers.
Indeed, there is a good case to be made for doctoring the rules concerning honored jerseys in the Dean Dome, to make sure that no matter what the outcome of various All-American teams and the NCAA Tournament, the school makes space to permanently recognize its first ever Academic All-America of the Year recipient. But right now, Zeller will not be thinking about all that.
Instead he'll be thinking about what is probably his biggest challenge to date: providing tangible leadership to this 2012 team over the last month of the season. Asked Saturday if he was satisfied with the team's progress, Zeller did not sugarcoat things or act all that excited to be 12-2 in league play. Instead he stressed that the team had many "little things" it needed to pay attention to, from blocking out to shot selection to defensive lapses, and said that taking care of the little things would make all the difference come March.
That's a message that will no doubt be said out loud a few more times over the coming weeks. At the beginning of the season, some thought this Carolina team might stand head and shoulders above the competition with its combination of depth and experience. It hasn't quite worked out that way, as injury, inconsistent play, and often frustrating rookie campaigns from James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston have made the Tar Heels look all too human—to the point that little things really will matter a great deal from here on out.
Zeller is not the proverbial rah-rah leader, but his is a deeply respected voice on the team, according to Roy Williams. "He's the quiet leader. He doesn't say much. But when he does, the kids have a great deal of respect for him," the head coach commented on Monday.
"I think they had that at the start of the season," Williams added. "But the way he's conducted himself in practice every day, the way he's played in the games, everything has just been on a positive nature. His attitude, the respect he has from his teammates, there is no question they had a tremendous amount of respect at the start of the year, but I think it's even more so now."
Williams stresses that Zeller's level-headed demeanor should not be mistaken for any lack of competitiveness. "[His competitiveness] is as high as it can be. He's very determined in practice. He takes the game very seriously, the positives and the negatives . . . He's a serious youngster. When he's out on the court in practice, and something's not going well, he will say something. It's in a definitive tone. It's not ‘come on, guys.' It's not ‘boys will be boys.' It's ‘hey, guys, let's get our blankety-blanks together and go do it the right way.'"
Here's an example of what Williams is talking about. Discussing the final minutes of the tight Virginia game with reporters postgame, Zeller matter-of-factly stated that Carolina simply could not have defensive lapses like the one suffered by Reggie Bullock when he let Sammy Zeglinski, the inbounds passer, slip into the corner for an open three-pointer that might have tied the game for the Cavaliers. Zeller spoke not with an air of complaint, and with no hint of resentment or anger towards Bullock (who was in fact standing a few feet away), but as an honest analyst of the game and of Carolina's need to improve. Importantly, Zeller closed the comment by shifting attention away from one individual who made an error to the need for the team to improve, saying "it's something we can work on."
Quiet, no-drama leadership of this kind is often overlooked and underrated, but it's the everyday building block of successful teams. One suspects the moment may come in March when a display of more demonstrative, conventional forms of athletic leadership from Zeller would be both welcome and necessary. But however he gets the point across, Zeller has a crucial role to play both on the court and in doing whatever it takes to be sure his teammates continue to keep their blankety-blanks together during the stretch run.
The optimal result of that run would of course be Zeller and fellow senior Justin Watts becoming the first Tar Heels to win two national titles as players.
But it would be deeply unfair to think Zeller's legacy depends simply on whether or not that happens. From the frustrations of his first two years, Zeller has in fact become one of Carolina's all-time great centers as well as one of the program's all-time great role models. When he departs the Smith Center floor as a Tar Heel for the last time Wednesday night, Carolina fans should know they are saying goodbye to a player cast in a one-of-a-kind mold, one who epitomizes the highest aspirations of Carolina basketball, on and off the court.
Thad is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.